The reopening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on May 14, after having been closed for three years, is not merely an artistic event but a great spiritual opportunity for the Bay Area.
When most people think of religiously inspired art, they have in mind pictures of Byzantine icons, DaVinci’s “Last Supper” or Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel. They imagine endless scenes of madonnas and saints looking piously toward heaven.
In the 20th century, spiritually inspired art moved far beyond stained glass windows, gothic cathedrals and overtly religious images. Composer John Cage encouraged artists to explore a spiritually informed philosophy for creating and experiencing art. He shared his ideas widely, especially with his friends Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Merce Cunningham, M.C. Richards, Morton Feldman and other towering 20th-century artistic creators.
Influenced by the Zen teachings of Huang Po about the ubiquity of Universal Mind, the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart’s assertion that we experience God primarily as mystery and the Hindu teacher Ramakrishna’s promise that we can achieve freedom from our thoughts, Cage vehemently opposed the idea of art as self-expression.
Cage believed the ego, with its concern for “profit and power,” cuts us off from experience. We need to learn to silence the ego, “so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience.” Because “noise … has the power to pull us into life itself,” Cage incorporated noise and chance into his compositions.
Invited to the perfectly sound-proofed box called the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, Cage hoped to hear absolutely nothing. Instead, he was astonished by the sound of blood flowing through his body and the firing of his neurons, and learned there is no such thing as silence.
In 1952, inspired by this spiritual experience he composed 4’33”, a piece performed by expert musicians who make no deliberate sounds with their instruments for four minutes and 33 seconds. Although many ridiculed him, Cage sought to help us reach a deeper level of experience, one that he had achieved himself. Three years before his death he said, “No day goes by without making use of that piece in my life and in my work. I listen to it every day … I don’t sit down to do it; I turn my attention toward it … More than anything else, it’s the source of my enjoyment of life.”
Cage’s opposition to art as self-expression and his insistence that we need to silence the ego in order to experience the holiness of everyday sensations inspired many visual artists.
Poet and potter M. C. Richards makes a related point in her emphasis on what she calls centering. She writes, “The deeper we go … the more contact we make with another’s reality … I claim that the center holds us all and as we speak out of it, we speak in a common voice.”
Some of Richards’ pottery is on display at Grace Cathedral until May 26. It is presented not as an exhibit but as a contemporary religious practice, a kind of alternative to traditional stations of the cross. The theologian Matthew Fox and Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus assembled these with other works by Ullrrich Javier Lemus as the Stations of the Cosmic Christ.
In her pottery and writing, Richards affirms Cage’s philosophy and describes education as the process of waking up and taking the world into our consciousness. “Joy is different than happiness … I am talking about joy. How, when the mind stops its circling, we say YES, YES to what we behold.”
The new SFMOMA will offer many opportunities to find our common center, to overcome our ego, to experience transcendence and to wake up to new ideas of who we are.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.